Beautiful Stranger [Beautiful Series]

Nine

“Are we going to talk about it today?”

I turned from where I stood on the ladder and looked at Chloe. She held a paintbrush at her hip, and leveled her stare at me.

“About . . . ?”

She narrowed her eyes. “About the breakup. About your sudden move. About Andy and this mystery man you’re now fucking, and about how different your life is now from how it was only two months ago?”

I plastered a smile on my face. “Oh, that? What’s there to say?”

She laughed, but then wiped a delicate wrist across her forehead, leaving a faint smudge of paint. Bennett was out of town on business and Chloe was determined to get the entire interior of their massive apartment painted while he was unable to micromanage the operation. She looked exhausted.

“Why didn’t you just hire someone to do all of this?” I asked, looking around. “Lord knows you can afford it.”

“Because I’m a control freak,” she said. “And stop trying to change the subject. Look, I know how that relationship slowly dragged you down, but I feel weird that I don’t know more about the real him. Bennett knew Andy through city events, but I never knew him that well, and—”

“Because,” I said, interrupting her, “you would have seen right through him. Just like Bennett did.” The familiar pang ricocheted through my stomach at the mere thought of Andy.

Chloe started to say something but I held up my hand.

“Come on. I know Bennett was wary of Andy from day one, even if he didn’t think it was his place to interfere. And I think by the time I met you, even I suspected Andy was cheating. I didn’t want him to be around you, where you’d be able to see what I’d sunk to so blatantly.”

Her eyes turned down at the corners, and I realized before she even said it what she was going to say. “Sweetie, I didn’t need to know him personally to know he was a cheating dirtbag. No one did. The only thing that helped him look decent was you.”

I swallowed a few times, willing the tears back. “Do you think it says something about me, like I’m stupid or blind to have spent so many years with him?”

I thought back to our first anniversary dinner at Everest, and how he arrived a half hour late and smelled strongly of perfume. Such a cliché. When I’d asked him if he’d been with someone else he’d said, “Baby, when I’m not with you, I’m always with someone else. It’s just how my life is. But I’m here now.”

I’d assumed he meant he was always working when he was away from me. But in truth, it was probably the only time he’d been honest with me about other women.

“No,” Chloe said, shaking her head. “You were young; he must have seemed unreal to you when you met. He’s charming as hell, Sara, that was for sure. But it’s not healthy to change everything so fast and not talk about it. Are you really okay?”

I nodded. “I actually am.”

“Does Andy call?”

I stared at the paintbrush in my hand and then dropped it back in the can. “No.”

“Does that bother you?”

“Maybe a little. I wish I’d left and he’d realized how he messed up. It would be nice to hear him grovel. But the truth is, I probably wouldn’t answer, anyway. I would never go back to him.”

“What did he do when you told him you were leaving?”

“Yelled. Threatened.” I looked out the window and remembered Andy’s face contorted in rage. His anger used to make me calmer, but that last time it made something in me snap. “He threw my clothes onto the street. Pushed me out the door.”

Chloe surprised me by dropping her paintbrush on the plastic tarp without even bothering to look where it landed. She walked over and wrapped me in a tight hug. “You could ruin him.”

“I suspect he’ll do that himself eventually. I just wanted out.” I smiled against her shoulder. “And I had the family attorney evict him. I think the papers liked that one. It was my damn house, remember?”

It had been good to get it all out. Chloe wasn’t a stranger to heartbreak, and the entire time we talked about Andy, I remembered how a little over a year ago, when she’d abruptly left Ryan Media, she’d sequestered herself in her apartment and hadn’t been in contact for a week. When she finally called, she told me everything that happened between her and Bennett—how they’d started off their secret fling, and how she’d decided that she needed to leave him.

It had been a revelatory moment for me, but in the completely wrong way. Her decision to leave her job and potentially sacrifice her relationship only strengthened my resolve to see things through with Andy. I’d wanted to work hard enough on it for both of us. The thing is, Bennett was the right guy for Chloe to work things out with. Andy would never have been that for me, not really.

Thinking about my ex always left me with a hangover, but talking about him coiled a lead ball in my gut that wouldn’t seem to disappear no matter how many rooms I helped Chloe paint or how many miles I ran along the river later that day.

For a brief moment I considered calling Max, but the answer to one man problem was never to create another. He might have wanted dinner the other night, but it wasn’t because he wanted depth. He wasn’t going to be that guy, either.

Monday and Tuesday flew by. Wednesday was a wall of meetings with new clients, and it felt like every minute ticked by in the span of a year. Thursday was worse in a completely opposite way: Chloe and Bennett left to take a long weekend over the Fourth of July holiday, and George went home to Chicago. The offices grew silent, and although we were a booming business, my entire team had been strangely too efficient. I had nothing to do and all around me the halls echoed.

Why am I here, I texted Chloe, not even expecting an answer.

I asked you the same thing before I left yesterday.

My footsteps echo in the hallway when I get more coffee. I’ve had enough coffee now to stay awake for a month.

So text your beautiful stranger. Booty call. Use that energy for something useful.

It doesn’t work that way.

My phone buzzed immediately.

What does that mean? How does it work??

I slipped my phone back in my purse and sighed, staring out the window. I hadn’t told Chloe anything else about the arrangement with my stranger, but I could see her patience wearing thin. Thankfully she wasn’t in town; I could put my phone away and keep the secret all mine, at least for a few more days.

New York weather in June was beautiful, but the moment July arrived it was unbearable. I began to feel like I never got away from the mazes of high-rises and more than a little like I was being baked in a brick oven. For the first time since I’d moved, I missed home. I missed the wind off the lake, tunnels of air so strong they would push you backward as you walked. I missed the green sky of summer storms and outlasting them at my parents’ house, hunkered down in the basement for hours playing pinball with my dad.

The best part of being in Manhattan, however, was how I could just walk aimlessly for a while and randomly stumble upon something interesting. This city had everything: yakisoba delivered at three in the morning, men who found warehouses full of mirrors for sexual escapades, and pinball in a bar in walking distance from my corporate office. When I saw the hint of the machine’s lights through the window, I faltered, feeling like the city had given me precisely what I needed.

Maybe more times than I really gave it credit for.

I ducked into the dark building, inhaling the familiar smell of popcorn and old beer. In the middle of a sunny Thursday, the bar was dark enough to make me feel like it was midnight outside, that everyone else was sleeping or in here, drinking and playing pool. The machine up front that I’d seen was a newer one, with polished levers and emo punk music I had no interest in. But in the back corner stood an older model with KISS in all of their painted-faces glory, and Gene Simmons’s mouth open, tongue darted down.

I made change for several dollars at the bar, ordered a beer, and made my way through the small crowd of people to the game in the back.

My father had been a collector. When I was five and wanted a puppy, he got me a Dalmatian, and then another, and then somehow we ended up with a huge house full of deaf dogs barking at each other.

Then there were classic Corvairs, mostly bent-up frames. Dad rented a garage for those.

Next came old trumpets. Art from a local sculptor. And, finally, pinball machines.

Dad had about seventy of the machines in storage and another seven or eight in the game room at home. In fact, it was during a tour of the game room that Dad and Andy had first bonded. Although Dad had no way of knowing that Andy had never played pinball in his life, Andy had acted like Dad’s collection was the most amazing thing he’d ever seen and managed to sound like he’d been playing since he could reach the levers. Dad had been smitten, and at the time I’d been thrilled. I was only twenty-one and wasn’t sure how my parents would feel about a boyfriend who was almost ten years older than me. But Dad immediately did everything he could—with his time and his checkbook—to support our relationship and Andy’s ambitions. My father was always easy to win over and, once won, his esteem was almost impossible to lose.

Unless, of course, he ran into you while you were out at a romantic dinner with a woman who wasn’t his daughter. Despite what my father told me and how much he urged me to see Andy for who he was and not the public image he strove to portray, I chose to believe Andy’s side of the story: the woman was a hardworking staff member, depressed over a breakup, and needed someone to listen, that’s all.

What a caring boss.

Two months later he was caught in the local paper cheating on me with yet someone else.

I fed a quarter into the game and braced my hands on the side, watching the shiny silver balls rack into place. Presumably the music and whistles and bells had been disconnected because the game remained eerily quiet as I shot a ball up and over the field, flipped the levers, and nudged the machine with my hips. I was rusty, and playing like crap, but didn’t care.

I’d had a few of these quiet, crystallizing moments in the past few weeks. Moments where I simultaneously registered how much I’d grown up and how little I really knew about life and relationships. Some of these moments happened when I was watching Bennett and Chloe, and the quiet way they picked on and adored each other in equal measure. Another moment was here, playing a game by myself, feeling more content than I had in a very long time.

A man or two came and talked to me; I was accustomed to the way guys seemed unable to resist a woman playing pinball by herself. But after four games, I felt someone watching me.

It was as if the skin on the back of my neck was being pressed only with the pressure of an exhale. Draining my beer I turned, and saw Max standing across the room.

He was with another guy, someone I didn’t recognize but who was also in formal business attire and who stood out in the bar just as clearly as I must have in my slim gray dress and red heels. Max watched me over the top of his beer, and when I located him, smiled and raised his glass slightly in salute.

I finished my game after another twenty minutes or so, and walked over to where they stood, trying to keep my face from breaking into a goofy grin. I was in the mood to see him and hadn’t even realized it.

“Hey,” I said, letting loose a tiny smile.

“Hey yourself.”

I looked to the friend at his side, an older man, with a long face and kind, brown eyes.

“Sara Dillon, this is James Marshall, a colleague and good mate of mine.”

I reached out, shook his hand. “Nice to meet you, James.”

“Likewise.”

Max took a sip of his beer and then pointed to me with his glass. “Sara’s the new head of moneys over at RMG.”

James’s eyes widened and he nodded, impressed. “Ah, I see.”

“What are you doing here?” I asked, looking around. “This doesn’t seem like a place for business in the middle of the day.”

“Fucked off work early, just like everyone in this town. And what about you, little miss? Trying to hide?” Max asked with a wicked gleam in his eyes.

“No,” I answered, my smile growing. “Never.”

His eyes widened slightly, and then he blinked to the bar, nodding at the bartender. “I come here because it’s filthy and usually empty and they have Guinness on tap.”

“And I come here because they have pool and I like to pretend that I can kick Max’s ass,” James said, and then finished his beer in a long drink. “So let’s play.”

I took this as my cue, and secured my purse over my shoulder, smiling a little at Max. “Have fun with that. I’ll see you.”

“Let me walk you out,” he said, and turned to James. “Get me another pint and I’ll meet you at the back table.”

With Max’s hand pressed to the small of my back, we walked out of the bar and into the blinding afternoon sun.

“Aw fuck,” he groaned with the heat, covering his eyes. “It’s better inside. Come back in and play with us.”

I shook my head. “I think I’m going to head home and do some laundry.”

“I’m flattered.”

I laughed but then looked around anxiously when he lifted a hand and touched the side of my face. He dropped it quickly, mumbling, “Right, right.”

“Does James know about me?” I asked quietly.

He looked at me, slightly wounded. “No. My friends know there’s someone, but not who.”

A thick awkwardness settled between us for a beat, and I didn’t know what protocol was here. It was exactly why the Friday-only arrangement was ideal: it required no thought, no negotiation of friends, feelings, or boundaries.

“Do you ever think about how weird it is that we run into each other all the time?” he asked, eyes unreadable.

“No,” I admitted. “Isn’t that the way the world works? In a city of millions you’ll always see the same person.”

“But how often is it the person you most want to see?”

I blinked away, feeling a bubbling mixture of unease and thrill drill up from my belly.

He ignored my awkward silence and pushed on. “We’re still on for tomorrow, yeah?”

“Why wouldn’t we be?”

He laughed, dropping his gaze to my lips. “Because it’s a holiday, Petal. I wasn’t sure I had holiday privileges.”

“It’s not a holiday for you.”

“Sure it is,” he said. “It’s the day we got rid of you whinging Americans.”

“Ha, ha.”

“Lucky for me there are no other holidays on Fridays this year, so I don’t have to worry about missing my new favorite day of the week.”

“Have you looked that far ahead at the calendar?” I felt myself moving a little closer to him, close enough to feel the warmth of his body even in this over-ninety-degree heat.

“No, I’m just a bit of a savant.”

“Idiot savant?”

He laughed, clucking his tongue playfully. “Something like that.”

“So where am I meeting you tomorrow?”

He lifted his hand again, and ran his index finger across my bottom lip. “I’ll text.”

And he did. Almost as soon as I turned the corner and reached the subway, my phone buzzed in my pocket with the words 11th Ave and W 24th St. There’s a high-rise across from the park. 7:00.

No indication of what building, what floor, even what to wear.

When I got there, it was clear there was really only one building he could mean. It was modern stone and glass, and overlooked the Chelsea Waterside Park. It also had a ridiculous view of the Hudson. The lobby was empty but for a security guard behind a desk, and after I fidgeted for about a minute, he asked me if I was Mr. Stella’s friend.

I paused, wary. “Yes.”

“Oh, good. I should have asked sooner!” He stood, almost as big around as he was tall, and waved me over to the elevators. “I’m supposed to send you up.”

I stared for a beat before snapping into action and walking into the elevator beside him. The guard stuck a key in a slot and then hit the R key.

Roof.

We were going to the roof?

With a friendly wave, he stepped out. “Have a nice Fourth,” he said just as the doors closed.

There were twenty-seven floors in the building, but the elevator was clearly new, and very fast, and I barely had time to think about what could be awaiting me before it let out a quiet ding and the doors opened.

I was in a small hallway, facing a short flight of stairs that led only to a door marked, ROOF ACCESS. NOT FOR PUBLIC USE.

What else could I do but assume that, today, the sign didn’t apply to me? This was Max, after all. I had the sense that he respected rules just long enough to learn how to properly bend them.

The door opened with a shrill metallic creak and slammed heavily behind me. I turned and tried opening it back up, to no avail. The day was hot, windy, and I was stuck on the roof of a building.

Holy crap. Max had better be up here or I am going to flip out.

“Over here!” Max called from somewhere to my right.

I blew out a relieved breath and walked around a large electrical box. Max stood, alone, with a blanket, pillows, and a giant spread of food and beer at his feet.

“Happy Independence Day, Petal. Ready to be fucked outside?”

He looked unbelievable, dressed casually in jeans and a blue T-shirt, tanned, muscular arms, and all six foot five of him moving toward me. His physical presence, out in the sun and with the wind whipping his shirt all over his chest . . . holy hell. Let’s just say it did things to me.

“I asked if you were ready to be fucked outside,” he said quietly, bending to kiss me. He tasted like beer, and apples, and something inherently Max-like. Warmth, sex, comfort . . . he was my comfort food, the thing you indulge in every now and then, without guilt, knowing that it grounds you even as it’s probably not all that good for you.

“Yes,” I said. “So you’re not worried about helicopters or cameras or”—I looked past him, pointing to the people on a roof in the distance—“the people over there with binoculars.”

“Nope.”

I narrowed my eyes, ran my hands up his chest to his neck. “Why don’t you ever worry about being seen?”

“Because it would change me to worry about it. It would keep me indoors, or make me paranoid, or stop me from fucking you on the roof. Consider what a tragedy that would be.”

“A big one.” It occurred to me that he was just as indifferent to being seen as not. He didn’t seek it; he didn’t avoid it. He just lived around the reality of it. It was such a different way of interacting with the press and the public that it threw me a little. It seemed so simple.

He grinned, and kissed the tip of my nose. “Let’s eat.”

He’d brought baguettes, cheese, sausage, and fruit. Little cookies with jam thumbprints, and perfect, tiny macarons. On a small tray were bowls of olives, cornichons, and almonds. In a metal bucket were several bottles of dark beer.

“Quite the spread,” I said.

He laughed. “I’ll say.” He ran a hand up my side, across my stomach, and to my breast. “I plan to get my fill.”

He pulled me down onto the blanket, opened a beer, and poured it into two glasses.

“Do you live in this building?” I asked, taking a bite of apple. The idea that we were this close to his apartment made me feel faintly queasy.

“I live at the building where you dropped me after the handy the other day. I own the apartment here but Mum lives there.” He held up his hand just as I opened my mouth to protest. “She’s visiting my sister in Leeds for a couple of weeks. She won’t be coming up to the roof.”

“Will anyone be coming up here?”

He shrugged, popping an olive into his mouth. “I don’t think so. Not sure, though.” Chewing, he regarded me for a minute, eyes smiling. “How do you feel about that?”

Apprehension warmed my belly, and I looked back to the locked door, wondering how it would feel to be spread on the blanket beneath Max, feel him pounding into me, and then suddenly hearing the sound of the door opening and slamming shut.

“Okay,” I said, smiling.

“It has the best view for fireworks,” he explained. “They set off four simultaneous shows you can see over the river. I figured it was something you’d like to see.”

I pulled him closer to me and kissed his jaw. “I’m actually most excited to see you totally naked.”

With a little growl, Max pushed some pillows to the side and laid me down on the thick blanket. He smiled, closed his eyes, and kissed me.

Damn, why did he have to feel so good? It would be easier to be casual—though certainly so much less satisfying—if Max were a mediocre lover, or treated me primarily as a convenient way to get off every week. But he was tender, attentive, and so sure of himself in this respect that it took very little for him to make me bow beneath him, ache for him, beg him quietly.

He loved the begging. He’d tease me to get more of it. I’d beg him to tease me longer.

In times like this, when he was kissing me, running his hands over my skin and pinching me in sensitive, hungry places, I struggled to not compare this lover to the only other I’d ever had. Andy was quick and rough. After about a year of playful sex, our contact never really was about exploration or sharing something. It had been in our bed, sometimes on the couch. Once or twice in the kitchen.

But here, Max slid a strawberry over my chin, sucked off the juices. He murmured about tasting me, licking my juices, fucking me until I screamed and it echoed across the street.

He took pictures of me as I peeled off my shirt and then his, as I licked my way down his stomach, unbuttoned his jeans, and took his hard length in my mouth. I hoped he would let me keep going this time.

He whispered, “Keep your eyes open. Look at me.” And then he took a picture. I was lost enough in the feel of him that, for the moment, I didn’t care.

Eventually, his phone fell to the blanket and his hands went into my hair, guiding me, keeping me slow. My mouth was moving so slow across him I couldn’t imagine he would come like this, long pulls back and then slowly taking him in again. But he didn’t let me speed up, and his eyes grew darker, and hungrier, and finally he swelled in me.

“All right?” he asked, voice tight. “I’m coming.”

I hummed, watching his face flush and his mouth open a little as he stared at my mouth on him. The sounds he made when he came were deep, and hoarse, and mixed nonsense with the filthiest words I’d ever heard. I swallowed quickly, focusing on the dazed expression on his face.

“Fuck,” he groaned, smiling. He reached down, pulled me up to his chest.

The sky above had started to darken. It turned pink, and then lavender, and we stared up at the lacy layer of clouds. His skin was warm, and smooth, and I turned my face into it, inhaling.

“I like the deodorant you use.”

He laughed. “Why, thank you.”

I kissed his shoulder, and hesitated, afraid to ruin the moment. But I had to. “You took a picture of my face.”

I felt more than heard his laugh. “I know. I’ll delete it now. I just want to look at it a couple of times.” He dropped a heavy arm to the blanket and blindly searched for his phone beside him. It was under my hip, and I pulled it up, handing it to him.

Together we flipped through the pictures. My hands on my shirt, on his chest. My breasts, my neck. We paused at the picture of my hands unbuttoning his jeans, pulling him out. When we got to one of my thumb sweeping over the head of his cock, he rolled over onto me, hard again.

“No, wait,” I said, the words dying inside his mouth as he kissed me. “Delete the face ones, Max.”

With a groan, he rolled back over and showed them to me. I couldn’t deny they were some of the most sensual things I’d seen: my teeth bared against his hip, my tongue touching the tip of his cock, and, finally, my mouth spread around him while I stared directly into the camera. My eyes had grown so dark it was clear I would suck him as long as I could. With a photo like that, I would remain in that position forever.

He clicked the delete button, confirmed the request, and then it was gone.

“That was the hottest thing I’d ever seen,” he said, rolling over onto me again and kissing my neck. “I really despise that no-faces rule.”

I didn’t say anything. Instead, I pushed his pants the rest of the way down his legs, then he shoved my shorts off and pulled my legs around his hips.

“Get a condom,” I mumbled into his neck.

“Actually,” he started, pulling back just enough to look me in the eye, “I was hoping we could move past the condom rule.”

“Max . . .”

“I have this.” He pulled a paper out from under the blanket. Ah, the ever-romantic test results. “I haven’t gone bare since high school,” he explained. “I’m not fucking anyone else and I want to be bare with you.”

“How do you know I’m on birth control?”

“Because I saw the pills in your purse at the library.” He shifted back, positioning himself to press against me, and rocked his hips. “Is this okay?”

I nodded, but asked, “Aren’t you worried about my history?”

He smiled, kissed along my shoulder, and ran a hand up and over my breast. “Tell me.”

I swallowed, breaking eye contact and looking to the side. He put a finger on my chin, turning my face back to his. “I’ve had one other lover,” I admitted.

Max’s eyes stopped smiling. “You’ve been with one other person?”

“But he fucked everyone else in Chicago while we were together.”

He let out a quiet curse. “Sara . . .”

“So, if you consider that I’ve been with everyone he was with, then I’ve been with far more than one.” I tried to smile to take the sharpness out of my words.

“Have you been tested since?”

“Yes.” I shifted my hips up against his, wanting this more than I realized. Andy had started using condoms halfway through our relationship; that alone should have clued me in somehow. At the time it felt depressingly distancing, although he told me it was to be sure we didn’t have kids before we were ready. Now I realized he afforded me at least that one courtesy.

But Max was doing it all backward. Distance at first, and then careening headlong into this strange monogamy we had.

Crap, Sara. That’s how most people do it.

I tugged at his hips, lifted to suck at his neck.

“Okay then.” Max moved back, reached between us, and slid inside with a low groan. Slowly, slowly, slowly he filled me. And then he covered my body with his, kissed his way up my neck, and pressed his lips against mine.

“Fucking brilliant,” he whispered. “Christ, there’s nothing like this.”

A strange desperation took over me. I had never felt his weight on me so fully, felt every bit of his bare skin, and it was a completely different type of possession. His shoulders were so broad, every muscle bunched and defined under my hands. Inside and over me, Max felt like his own planet.

He continued to kiss me as he moved, starting so slow, letting me feel every inch. “Someone could look over here. See you beneath me, thighs spread, your bare feet on my legs.” He lifted himself on his elbows, looked down at my breasts. “Think they’d like to see these.”

I closed my eyes and arched my back so he could get a better look. God, there was such a strange safety with Max. He never made it seem weird, or wrong that I liked the idea of people watching us. It was as if he loved it just as much as I did, wanted to get caught, too.

“Think you want someone to watch you get fucked sometime?” he asked, speeding up a little.

My honesty tumbled forward, breathless: “I like the idea of people seeing you like this with me.”

“Yeah?”

“I don’t know that I wanted this before I met you.”

He fell over me, heavy and warm. “I’d give you anything you wanted. I love how you transform when I’m fucking you and watching. When I’m taking pictures, you lose your mysterious little shield and open up, like you’re finally breathing.”

I stretched under him, pulling him as close as I could, and looked up at the dark sky just as the first firework shot out over the river. The sound followed the light, and a deep boom shook the roof below my back.

More fireworks exploded in a flurry—stars and flames and lights so brilliant and close that it felt like the sky was on fire. The building under me vibrated, shaking my bones and ripping through my chest.

“Holy fuck,” he said laughing, and moved harder, jerking roughly, growing close. I knew his tells already so well. He was barely hanging on. The sound was almost deafening so near to the river, and the air grew heavy with sulfur, smoke, and light. He reached near my head, raised himself up on his knees, and pounded into me, snapping a picture of where we came together as the lights shone red and blue and green on my skin.

I took a deep breath and fell to pieces, crying out sharply, but my sound was lost in the thundering all around us.

Max drew a blanket from a pile and wrapped it around us both, perhaps less because it was cold and more because we were no longer performing for our imagined audience. We were simply sipping beer, holding hands, watching the fireworks.

“You said you haven’t made a commitment in a while, but is it weird to be monogamous with a sex buddy?” I asked, turning to watch his face.

He laughed and tilted his beer bottle to his lips. “No. I’m not such a wanker that I can’t be with one person if that’s what she wants.”

“ ‘What she wants’? You’d be okay if I was with other men?”

He shook his head and looked back to the river, where the smoke was just now starting to clear. “Don’t think so, actually.” He lifted his beer again, emptied it. “We didn’t use a condom tonight, if you recall. Couldn’t do that if you were with other men.”

He reached over to grab another beer and the blanket fell off his shoulders, revealing his bare back, each muscle tightly defined. I leaned forward and kissed my way up from the middle of his spine to his neck. “When was the last time you had a girlfriend? Was Cecily a girlfriend?”

“Not really.” He moved back beside me and cuddled under the blanket. “I’ve dated a couple of women exclusively since I moved here. But it’s been forever since I loved someone, if that’s what you mean.”

I nodded. “I guess that’s what I mean.”

“I had a serious girlfriend at uni for a bit. She went off with a mate of mine. Married him, actually. I was right pissed off at women for a bit after that. Now I just realize relationships are a lot of work, and energy, and time.” He took a sip, swallowed. “And I haven’t had a lot of that, trying to get the company up and running. I’m not opposed to the idea of having someone, but it’s hard to find a good fit in this city, strange as that sounds in a place with like eight million people.”

I felt absolutely nothing when he said this, no pang of hope that it would be me, no worry that Max was hoping to find someone else. For someone like me, who had, if anything, always felt more rather than less, it was jarring. The eeriest hollow sensation bloomed in my chest.

“I should probably go,” I said, stretching and letting the blanket fall away.

Max looked over my naked body before meeting my eyes. “Why’re you always in such a hurry to leave?”

“We don’t do overnights,” I reminded him.

“Not even on holidays? I could use a morning shag. We can use Mum’s guest room.”

“So call Will. He’s cute.”

“I would but he always insists on being big spoon. It’s awkward.” He paused. “Wait. You think Will is cute?”

I laughed, taking a final sip of beer and reaching for my clothes. “Yes, but you’re more my type.”

“Posh? Gifted in the penis department? Godlike?”

I looked over at him and laughed. “I was going to say you have the perfectly filthy mouth.”

His eyes darkened and he leaned to kiss me. “Stay over. Please, Petal. I want to fuck you in the morning when you’re all sleep-rumpled and drowsy.”

“I can’t, Max.”

He stared at me for a long beat and then looked away, raising his bottle to his lips, mumbling, “He really did a number on you,” around it.

I felt my smile fade. “It’s better when you don’t try to find meaning in a woman who wants sex to just be sex. Yes, Andy did a number on me but that isn’t why I don’t want to stay over.”

I looked at him for a moment before remembering to pull my smile back in place. “I can’t wait to see what you come up with next week.”

By the time I made it home, the high of being with Max had fizzled into a strange ache beneath my ribs. I tossed my keys and bag to the table in the hall and leaned back against the wall, looking into the inky darkness of my living room. My place was small but in the few short months I’d been in New York it had come to feel more like home to me than had the palatial home I’d shared with Andy for almost five years.

But tonight, with the echo of music and sparklers bouncing off the buildings, and the sound of laughter and celebrations shouted from the sidewalks outside, my tiny space felt lonely for the first time since I’d arrived.

Without turning on any lights, I stripped as I made my way to the bathroom and stepped into the cramped shower. I stood under the hot spray and closed my eyes, hoping the sound of water would drown out the noise in my head.

It didn’t work. My muscles were tense and sore and the subtle ache between my legs made it almost impossible for my thoughts to not continually circle back to Max.

I’d never been the type of girl to obsess over a man before, but that was definitely what seemed to be happening. Max wasn’t only gorgeous, he was nice. And I knew it was the sex that made us truly compatible. I was still having a hard time wrapping my head around my newfound obsession with being watched by him—maybe even also by others—but that need pushed up like steam beneath my skin: warm, and exciting, and impossible to ignore.

And Max seemed to accept it, embrace it even, as easily as he did everything else.

Where my relationship with Andy had been only for public display, Max seemed to have tapped into my unfamiliar desire to be watched while respecting my need for privacy. For as much as Max was the playboy and seemed to be wrong for me in every possible way, he was letting me experience something I never would have felt safe enough to try with Andy. Was it really that simple? Was I keeping Max at arm’s length because it was the opposite of everything I had with Andy? My relationship with Andy had false depth and lacked any spark. My relationship with Max was intentionally simple, and even seeing him from a distance made it feel like a torch ignited in my chest.

I turned off the water, suddenly too warm. For a beat, I regretted not still being with Max. I’d squandered the chance to touch his skin, taste his sounds, and feel his weight over me all night long.

But when I walked into my bedroom and studied my reflection in the mirror on my closet door, I looked suddenly unfamiliar to myself. I stood straighter, blinked less, watched more. Even I could see there was some wisdom in my eyes that hadn’t been there before.